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Phew! It’s hard to write a brief biography for Alexandra – she completed a BA in Classics in 2009, including two semesters in Italy, which she enjoyed so much she decided to move there. To this end, she did a CELTA, in Milan in 2010, then taught in Rome for several years, also studying archaeology. After about seven years, she moved to join us in Berlin.
Since moving in 2016 she has continued to teach English, but also done a part-time DELTA at the Berlin School of English and become a Cambridge speaking examiner. In 2020, she started to work as an assistant director of studies and became a CELTA trainer. These days she is also studying an MA in Applied Linguistics at the University of Birmingham.
- What aspect or period of archaeology do you find the most interesting?
My favorite aspects of archaeology are tracing things back through time and seeing how cultures influenced one another. So much of the architecture, art, religion, government, society, etc. of Roman civilization came from Greek civilization and so on and so on. That’s also what fascinates me about language. You can trace a word back through time in the same way and see the changes it went through to become what it is today.
- Did you study any classical languages, and did they help improve your understanding of English/your work as an English teacher?
I studied Latin for a couple of years at university. Even though it’s a dead language, I think it’s still studied because it has a lot of modern practical applications. Latin helped me in my learning of both Italian and German, and it has a lot in common lexically with English. I use it mainly in my teaching when I help students try to work out the meaning of unknown words, especially for when they need to do an exam, e.g., the TOEFL. Latin is really useful when helping students find lexical patterns, like words with similar roots and their related meanings.
- What life experiences have influenced your teaching?
Working and living in different countries has had the biggest influence on my teaching mainly because of the different perspectives it has given me. When I taught in Italy, my students had excellent knowledge of the structure of language and I could use the terms past participle, auxiliary verb, etc. and they wouldn’t bat an eye. Also, I knew Italian well so there were very few breakdowns in communication in the classroom. When I moved to Germany, the use of technical linguistic terminology got me a lot of funny looks and I had to adapt to using terms like 3rd form and helping verb. I didn’t speak any German either, so there were quite a few breakdowns in communication in the beginning. These experiences gave me the opportunity to reflect on topics like the use of L1 in the classroom and linguistic metalanguage in explanations. The lesson learned for me here I think was: know your audience.
- Why did you decide to become a CELTA* trainer?
*[Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages]
I love teaching English, but I’m stimulated most when I have to teach something new and different. I think we all have the feeling sometimes of “Good grief, if I have to teach the present perfect again…”, so it’s important for me to have variety. As a CELTA trainer, I have the opportunity not only to teach trainees about language, as I would in TESOL, but also how to teach language, which is something I have studied but also something I still have a lot to learn about.
- What were the main things you learned from your DELTA* course? Did it change you as a teacher? If so, how?
[Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages]
I learned a lot about teaching methodology, lexis, phonology, testing, curriculum design, etc., but the DELTA was really important because I was forced to re-evaluate my teaching. I had become quite set in my ways over the years. For example, I didn’t do a lot of pronunciation work in class, mainly because one of my CELTA trainers years before had made us transcribe entire sentences into phonemic script and it had scarred me for life [/aɪ θɪŋk ðæt saʊndz kwaɪt fʌn!/ – Ed.]. But I needed to face my shortcomings as a teacher during the DELTA, and I came out on the other side much more open to different techniques, and confident about my teaching abilities because I was more knowledgeable.
- What inspired you to start a master’s course and what drew you to the University of Birmingham?
The University of Birmingham does a lot of progressive research in the field of linguistics, they have a distance Applied Linguistics MA, and they gave me credit for the DELTA, so it was a pretty perfect fit. As for why I wanted to do the MA, there were a lot of factors. COVID was one of them, as I’m not always the most intrinsically motivated person and I work well with externally imposed deadlines, so I knew it would make me more productive. I also potentially want to get into linguistics research. In terms of immediate application, I know from the DELTA that a deeper knowledge of language and linguistics will help me become both a better English teacher and CELTA trainer.
- What’s it like doing a distance MA from another country?
It’s amazing how much things have changed since I finished my BA ten years ago. You basically have entire digital libraries and there are so many resources available which help enormously with distance study. Having said that, it isn’t like face-to-face study. Sitting in a lecture hall listening to a professor with other students is a social experience to some extent. A distance program is isolating, no matter how many ways the university attempts to make it less so. The University of Birmingham has a summer program though for their distance MA students, so I’m hoping to attend that next year.
- How do you hope your MA will help your teaching?
I think awareness is really the key here. I am currently working on the discourse analysis module, and I’m much more conscious now of some of the features of discourse we can find in the classroom between teachers and students, to what extent we can teach things like cohesion and genre to our students, and how much writing style differs from country to country. By just becoming more aware of these phenomena, I believe it will change how and what I teach because I’ll know more about the “why.”
- Which ELTABB event left the most long-lasting memory? Why?
Michael McCarthy’s talk on corpus linguistics in 2019 left the biggest impression on me. I think corpus linguistics has far-reaching implications for language learning and teaching, but what really struck me was the conclusion of the presentation. If I remember it correctly, he analyzed informal and formal spoken conversation and the words with the highest co-occurrence in informal talk were “you know” and in formal talk were “I don’t know” (as in, “I don’t know if you’re familiar with…”). I thought it was really interesting how much of our spoken interaction is based on assuming shared experience in informal conversation and making sure not to assume it in formal conversation.